Out of Japan: Lonely hearts pour out their life stories

KANAZAWA - It was nearly midnight in the coffee-shop, and the guests were not ready to go home. Sitting around the low wooden bar they were drinking coffee, beer or wine and sharing conversation in a manner which would be rare in Tokyo but more common in Japan's smaller towns and villages. Gradually, as the night wore on, a series of life stories began to emerge - and a series of reasons why no one was ready to leave the cosy security of the coffee-shop and go home just yet.

Akiko was married, but, she said with a dismissive wave of her hand, her husband was out somewhere in the shitamachi - downtown - drinking with his friends. She was sitting here, drinking coffee, because she got tired of sitting at home.

She was in her mid- to late-thirties, but looked tired out from domestic life and an apparently cool marriage. Like so many young Japanese women, she had given up her office job soon after she married, and now her life centred around her small apartment. She was wearing a house dress, as if, lonely at home, she had decided on a whim to venture out and had not paused to change her clothes in case she changed her mind.

But she had put on some lipstick, and after receiving a little attention she began to cheer up. She would not accept an offer of a drink - 'alcohol does not agree with my body,' she said - but she ordered a bowl of ice-cream with popcorn instead, with the enthusiasm of a little girl at a fair. She had a little girl's laugh, although her husband had probably not heard her laugh for some time.

Akiko was a friend of the owner of the bar, Arai-san, a woman in her forties who may have been married once but now lived on her own, passing the evenings sitting behind the bar, chainsmoking cigarettes from a small holder and looking into the middle distance. Without warning she would launch into a discussion with a customer as the mood took her, and then lapse into silence again, a high priestess of lonely hearts.

During a lull in the conversation, a middle-aged man and his wife burst in, both laughing. Clearly exhilarated by drink, they began entertaining the whole bar with ribald jokes.

She called him 'grandfather' and he called her 'grandmother', and what they were joking about was actually quite serious. His company, a pharmaceutical distributor, was sending him on short notice to work in Osaka, 150 miles away, where he would have to live alone. Because of the cost of buying a house his wife was going to remain in their home in Kanazawa. He was due to leave at the end of the week, and they were having a night out on the town.

He was joking with his wife about finding girlfriends in Osaka: 'I'm free now, grandmother, isn't that so?'

'You drink too much to enjoy it anyway,' she scoffed, good- natured and red-faced from drink.

'How would you remember at your age,' he shot back, setting off laughter in the bar. 'No, Osaka will be very difficult,' he said, only half-joking now.

This is tanshinfunin, the single-person posting which is the fate of many Japanese employees who are transferred with little notice from one part of Japan to another, and with no thought of how it will affect their private lives or their family. They may end up living on their own for months or even years, returning home when they get a few days off. This is part of the price of working for a company which guarantees a job for life.

At one end of the bar were two old women, widowed, chatting away about the first thing that came into their heads, anything to delay the walk home to their empty flats with nothing more than a television for company. Thirty years ago they would probably have been living with one of their children's families, but the cost of housing and changing social patterns is seeing the break-up of multi-generational families under one roof.

Later in the evening four newspaper journalists came in, weary after their 'midnight watch' on a local politician. Many journalists are sent to doorstep politicians and business leaders, waiting until they get home from dinner. Such is the Japanese system that the journalists are invited in for a drink and sometimes a few titbits of news for the trouble they have taken in staying up so late.

But this evening the politician had been tired, and after a quick whisky had excused himself, leaving the journalists with no story to write.

It was nearly 2am when I left. Arai-san was still sitting behind the bar, with her customers sitting opposite her, so many people with nowhere else to go.

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